The return of a holiday market that has long unified black businesses

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Every year when she worked for the National Education Association, Sheila Simmons spoke to board members who traveled from across the country to Washington for a November meeting.

And every year she made the same suggestion to them: If they wanted a cultural experience, they should go shopping.

She would tell them that if they wanted to learn about black culture, they should visit a Christmas market unlike any other in town.

“Even if you don’t buy anything, you learn,” Simmons, who is black, said of the market on a recent morning. “You learn something about the artwork. You learn about the music. You learn about the clothes. And you learn from people who created these things with their own hands.”

When you hear Simmons and others talk about the Shop Til Ya Drop market, it’s easy to understand that for many in DC’s black community, the holiday bazaar is more than just a place to shop for unique goods. It’s an opportunity to come together and support black-owned businesses. The majority of vendors are black artists and entrepreneurs. Many come from the DC area, but others travel as far away as Atlanta and even Africa.

Simmons, who retired as director of human and civil rights at the National Education Association, uses the words “justice,” “parity,” and “representation” when speaking about the holiday market.

“This local marketplace not only strengthens our community in terms of what it provides of ours, but has also been an opportunity to create local jobs,” Simmons said. It helps close the wealth gap, she said. “The other thing that I think is so important is that you have the opportunity to build community. You have a chance to reconnect with people you’ve known over the years and it’s about food, it’s about fashion, it’s about culture.”

Simmons is not a provider or organizer of the event. She is a longtime customer and volunteer. Her home is adorned with artwork and her closet is full of clothes she’s bought there over the years.

“I don’t dress for Black History Month; I dress every day to represent my culture,” she said. “It’s something I’ve embraced as a lifestyle, starting with things I bought at the very first Shop Til Ya Drop event.”

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The event will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on Friday. The first actually took place 32 years ago, but the pandemic prevented the market from opening up for the last two years.

This year, Juanita Carol Britton, widely known by her nickname “Busy Bee,” was determined to bring it back.

“I couldn’t take the stress Not to have the show,” she said. She knew too many people depended on it. “I’ve had over 800 calls and emails from people asking about this.”

They all, she said, asked the same question: “Are we back?”

The importance of this year’s recurring event has not escaped the notice of many who are aware of it. In the Washington area, the pandemic has hit everyone, but DC’s black community disproportionately. Britton said there are previous vendors who won’t be returning this year because either they or their companies didn’t survive.

For those who have done so, she said, the event provides a way to get the needed year-end sales.

Britton, whose company BZB International operates more than a dozen businesses at airports in the DC area, said the idea for the market came to her after a visit to Brixton Market in London. There, she saw a “beautiful, eclectic community of Caribbean people” selling their handmade items and began thinking about how to recreate this model in Washington.

In 1990, the first year the Shop Til Ya Drop event was held, people stood outside in the snow waiting for it to open. Britton remembered buying them coffee. The event took place in a single day and about 800 people attended, she said.

Now the event takes place on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving and every Saturday before Christmas at the Shiloh Family Life Center in northwest Washington. Britton expects it to attract thousands of buyers these days and raise more than $500,000. While the sellers are mostly black-owned businesses, she hopes people of all races and ethnicities will come to shop.

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“I want it to bring people together,” she said. “I always wish for a broader group of buyers.”

Aaron Johnson said he would like to see a line of people waiting to be let in.

“That’s the way it should be,” he said. His family runs Unitees, a handmade clothing line, and it has been in the market for a long time. “It’s a very unique place as there are handmade fashions and creations by African American artists and designers from all over the country. There is no other space like this.”

Lorraine Green, who retired as an executive at Amtrak, was among those who shopped at the first event. At the time, their daughter Leslie was about 10 years old. Now this kid is a grown woman, has her own business and will be a saleswoman at the event one of these Saturdays. Many items in their line of apparel and gear bear the word “Grateful.”

“I’ve seen Juanita inspire this new generation and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” said Green. “I don’t know many visionaries, but I would say Juanita is one. I think you would have to be a visionary and a futurist to do what she did.”

Green said when she told friends the event was back, they reacted with excitement. Part of it, she said, is that the pandemic has left so many people eager to return to some sense of normalcy, and the event “brings us back to the feeling that everything is going to be okay.”

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Simmons described it as a necessary “bright light in our community.”

“Our light has been greatly dimmed by the pandemic, by casualties, by George Floyd,” she said. “And now it’s like, ‘Wow, we can get back together.’ ”

She now has a home in Florida and she was there the day we spoke. But she plans to travel to Washington in the coming days, in time to visit the market.

“I’ll definitely make it,” she said. “I can’t even imagine not being there to see that.”

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